Image: U.S. Marines on patrol in Afghanistan
Rafiq Maqbool  /  AP
Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit patrol in the town of Garmser in Afghanistan's Helmand Province this week. The Defense Department has extended the combat tour of 2,200 Marines in Afghanistan.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 7/12/2008 9:52:03 PM ET 2008-07-13T01:52:03

The United States military has a strategic shortfall — not of bullets or ballistic missiles, but of soldiers and Marines fluent in Dari, Pashto, Uzbek, and Turkmen — the languages spoken in Afghanistan.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress sent U.S. troops to Afghanistan to fight al-Qaida forces.

But after seven years on the ground, military leaders are still short of soldiers and Marines who can speak and understand the local lingo.

In movies about World War II, there's often one soldier — for instance, the French-speaking Cajun from Louisiana — who could converse with French villagers in Normandy.

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But in the real world of 2008, things are a bit more complicated.

How can the United States be a successful interventionist nation without an adequate supply of people fluent enough to interrogate the locals — not just in Afghanistan — but around the world?

Where will future crises erupt?
It’s not just Pashto and Dari in Afghanistan, but Javanese and Indonesian, or Kazakh, should trouble erupt in that oil-and-uranium-rich nation.

Video: Suicide bomb kills 41 in Kabul

If today’s problem is the Dari deficit, what about five or ten years from now?

How can the Pentagon train soldiers and Marines to be proficient in critical languages if no one knows for certain where the crisis will be, in say, 2012?

The Defense Department might invest money in training a cadre of people in Farsi or Kazakh, only to find that it may not need them in five years, instead finding themselves short of Javanese and Indonesian speakers.

Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s panel on Oversight and Investigations, convened a hearing Wednesday to draw attention to this language dilemma.

Snyder said that a monetary language proficiency bonus is paid to 17,000 military service members, which sounds like a lot, until you realize that it only amounts to one percent of the Defense Department’s 1.3 million personnel.

And a significant number of the linguistically proficient, Snyder said, are senior officers involved in intelligence work — not soldiers and Marines walking into Afghan villages.

A Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, Snyder said he didn’t learn Vietnamese before his tour of duty.

Language in boot camp
But he has an idea to remedy the language scarcity: make language training a required part of boot camp for new soldiers and Marines.

Slideshow: Images of Afghanistan “In the Marine Corps, every Marine is a rifleman and a big part of boot camp is learning to shoot,” Snyder said. “That’s just ingrained in you, and you know that’s important. Discipline is important, honor is important, shooting a rifle is important. If we think this (foreign language proficiency) is important, then why not have that be from the get-go, from day one?”

But training soldiers and Marines to more than a rudimentary level of a language is a long, expensive task — even to get them to “2 plus” on the military’s zero-to-five language proficiency scale.

Video: U.S. faces 'real challenges in connected theaters' At the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., “they’re spending 63 weeks in Arabic, five days a week, six hours a day, these kids are amazing. Sixty-three weeks — and only a portion of them can make it,” said Richard Brecht, head of the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language, who testified before Snyder’s committee Wednesday. “It’s real tough.”

The demands of irregular warfare
Retired Army officer Andrew Krepinevich, the head of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, an independent policy research institute, said irregular warfare and counter-insurgency will demand larger numbers of U.S. foreign language speakers.

“You don’t need 100 percent of a unit to speak Pashto or Farsi — you go into an area with a platoon of 40 soldiers if a few of them speak the language you’re in pretty good shape,” he said.

Krepinevich told Snyder’s committee that he’d recently talked to one Army general who said, “Once we leave Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re not going to do this for another 30 years. The American people won’t stand for it” — but Krepinevich doesn’t necessarily believe that.

The trends, he said, point to “a disordered world.”

The inescapable demographic reality is that a huge percentage of the population in Africa, South America, and Asia is under age 15 — “a rising number of highly frustrated people” who live in countries with incompetent or corrupt governments, Krepinevich said.

These people often resort to violence and they may live in places with an impact on U.S. trade and prosperity.

“Irregular warfare is here to stay, it is a trend, I think it is going to increase in importance,” said Krepinevich

And this won’t be the traditional waging of war — blowing up bridges or dropping bombs on enemy troop concentrations — but policing, training, and patrolling.

It is possible to imagine a scenario in the next several years in which domestic political pressure in the United States builds for military intervention to stop mass killings in a particular place, such as Darfur.

The defense secretary might turn to the president and say, “We just don’t have sufficient number of people fluent in the local languages to be able conduct long-term stability operations.” For the non-interventionists in the United States, this might sound like good news.

With the U.S. military already over-stretched, irregular warfare will require choices. “We’re probably not going to place a high priority on being able to deploy in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Krepinevich. “There are places in the world where you say if this country fails, it is going to have a major effect on U.S. security or economic well being.”

Case in point: Nigeria, from which the United States imports more than 400,000 barrels of high-quality crude oil every year, nearly as much as it imports from Saudi Arabia. “You say, ‘That’s one area we’re going to have a hard time turning our back on,’” Krepinevich said.

Brecht told the committee that the language deficit can not be remedied only by training of those already in uniform.

In the long run, recruitment of foreign speakers depends on vastly improved language education starting in the nation’s primary schools, he pointed out.

Shortage of Chinese speakers
The military language deficit is part of a larger national shortfall. There are, for instance, few U.S. elected officials who speak Chinese.

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is one of the only prominent American politicians fluent in Chinese. Huntsman worked as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan in the late 1970s and served as a trade official and ambassador to Singapore in the 1990s. On a trade mission to China last year he gave speeches in Chinese.

Relative to the size of state population, Utah has the highest number of students studying foreign languages of any state.

“German and French are great, but they’re a bit of an anachronism,” Huntsman said on a recent visit to Washington. “So we’ve done a bit of fortifying of the languages available in our schools. We struck up a relationship with Chinese Ministry of Education through the embassy here. We now have teachers from China dropped into some of our high schools who teach Chinese.”

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